By GUY LAMOLINARA
Imagine having millions of images to choose from for an album of only about 500 and one begins to realize the process that resulted in Eyes of the Nation: A Visual History of the United States.
The Library's unrivaled "special collections" (nonbook items and rare books) are justly praised as the best in the nation, yet never before has a book been published that tells the story of America through these collections. Eyes of the Nation is a pictorial and narrative history for the general reader just published by Alfred A. Knopf in association with the Library of Congress. This 416-page volume features more than 500 images from the Library's collections, which have been called "America's Memory."
To make his task easier and more successful, one of the book's principal authors, picture editor Vincent Virga, worked very closely with Library curators, notably Bernard F. Reilly Jr. (Chicago Historical Society, formerly head of the Prints and Photographs Division Curatorial Section). The initial collaboration between Mr. Virga and Mr. Reilly led to the project's successful conclusion. Mr. Virga also collaborated closely with Elena Millie (Prints and Photographs Division).
"The Library of Congress is the Everest of libraries. To attempt to scale even its lower slopes without expert guidance is to risk plunging to hubristic death," Mr. Virga said in the book's Acknowledgments section. Thus "I asked [the Library's curators] to show me what they loved best. ... What 'stuff' they most treasured. This book is the result of that exercise."
Also working on the project were Library curators Katherine Blood, Beverly Brannan, Verna Posever Curtis, Carol M. Johnson, Harry Katz and C. Ford Peatross of the Prints and Photographs Division; Ronald E. Grim of the Geography and Map Division; John R. Hébert of the Hispanic Division; Patrick Loughney of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division; John McDonough of the Manuscript Division; and Jon Newsom of the Music Division.
The other principal author is Alan Brinkley, a professor at Columbia University, who wrote essays that introduce the book's seven chapters.
According to Dr. Billington, who penned the book's preface, "Alone among the nations of the earth, the United States is at once a heterogeneous assemblage of people of various colors, religions and national origins and a remarkably stable democratic society constantly redefining itself by the very principles upon which it was founded.
"Eyes of the Nation brings this epic chronicle to life through the artful presentation of ... images of the American past -- images created by those who helped build it, preserved in the collections of the Library of Congress."
From its cover image, believed to be the first photograph of a human face, taken by Robert Cornelius of himself in 1839, to a 1964 lithograph (and gift to the Library) by Robert Rauschenberg incorporating images from mass media ; from a remarkable 1945 photograph of Times Square filled with the faces of celebration at war's end, to a horrific 1916 photograph of an 18-year-old, mentally impaired African American who had been burned and mutilated for the murder of his employer's wife, Eyes presents the greatest moments in the nation's history as well as what Dr. Billington calls America's "dark side: grave injustices, slavery, bigotry, civil war, hardships, violence, opportunities missed or long denied."
Fittingly, the book begins with images of the land's first settlers, Native Americans. Theodor de Bry's "The Village of Secota" (1590) depicts a settlement village on Roanoke Island. Later works, from the 19th century, are by the artists George Catlin and James Ackerman, whose emphasis on the dignity of American Indians contrasts sharply with the stereotypical images of the day.
Yet not all the illustrations in Eyes of the Nation are pictorial. The written word, so important in the nation's founding, is also represented by such items as Thomas Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln's preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
Paul Revere's engraving of a "bloody massacre" in Boston in 1770 helped foment revolution. Another war on American soil, the Civil War, is chronicled in images such as John Reekie's "A Burial Party", which shows an African American beside a stretcher heaped with skulls and other remains of the conflict's human tragedy.
In a section simply titled "The River," America's most important one, the Mississippi, is highlighted for the contributions it has made to social, cultural and economic life. A photograph of steamboats in Memphis, among the busiest ports on the waterway; a mezzotint based on George Caleb Bingham's iconic painting The Jolly Flat Boat Men; a genius of fiction, William Faulkner, and a genius of jazz, Louis Armstrong -- all are tied to the power of the Mississippi.
The pains and gains of the Reconstruction era are apparent in works such as Thomas Nast's "Andrew Johnson's Reconstruction and How It Works" , in which the influential cartoonist mocks what he views as President Johnson's betrayal of the promise of democracy for all Americans. Inspired by Shakespeare's Othello, Nast portrays Johnson as the dissembling Iago and a freed slave as the Moor who was betrayed by his friend.
On the architectural front, an image of the so-called White City at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago is proof of the enormous influence this exhibition had on the form and look of the nation's cities. Those cities, none of which grew larger than New York, were populated by a burgeoning immigrant population, as exemplified by a 1900 photograph from the Detroit Publishing Co. called "Mulberry Street," still home today to many of New York City's Italian Americans.
Overseas, Americans were also making their mark. Mary Cassatt, the only artist from the States to join the original Impressionists in Paris, painted The Banjo Lesson in 1893 . Although the medium was not invented here, motion pictures began their path to becoming the nation's premiere cultural export around this time. Edwin S. Porter's "The Great Train Robbery" (1903) was one of the first western masterpieces and paved the way for longer, more complex films.
Evidence of the nation's preeminence in the sciences can be seen in a photograph taken at the instant of takeoff of the first machine-powered flight, of Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903 (below right).
Sports have always been important to American life, and one of the West Coast's first stadiums, the Stadium Bowl, was constructed in 1910. Panoramic photographs, such as one taken in 1913 of a field day celebration there, helped document "America's newfound self-confidence."
"Stadium Day, May 29, 1913." Panoramic silver gelatin print, Tacoma, Wash., 1913. One of the first stadiums on the West Coast, the Stadium Bowl was built in 1910 next to Tacoma High School on a bluff overlooking Commencement Bay. The school had been initially designed in 1891 as a Beaux-Arts hotel by McKim, Mead & White, one of the period's most celebrated architectural firms, but the depression of 1893 suspended construction until 1905, when Frederick Heath reconfigured the project as Tacoma High School. Photo by Marvin Dement Boland
But, as Eyes of the Nation makes clear, the nation's prosperity and optimism were not universal. In "The Close of a Career in New York" ragged children play in the street next to a horse's carcass -- a bleak image of poverty as the country began its transformation from a rural to an urban nation.
Dorothea Lange's photo shows a woman stranded, all her possessions piled into a vehicle, on a desolate road with her two children. Lange's Depression-era photographs encapsulated the nation's fears and uncertainties as it fought its way out of its worst economic crisis.
Poet, musician, filmmaker, writer and photographer Gordon Parks also documented the Depression, as in his 1943 "Women Welders" for the Office of War Information . Clearly, women as well as minorities had acquired the job skills previously the bastion of white males.
Another photograph from that same year tells another story: Absent its title, Ansel Adams's photograph of a baseball game in Inyo County, Calif. , appears to be evidence of nothing more than a crowd gathered to watch the nation's pastime. But its name, "Baseball Game, Manzanar Relocation Center," speaks of a nation so paranoid that it relocated 10,000 of its citizens of Japanese descent to this camp based on fears of impending invasion following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
But while the nation was at war, great art was still being created. At the Library of Congress, for example, in 1944 Martha Graham and Aaron Copland premiered their masterwork Appalachian Spring , commissioned by the Library's Coolidge Fund and performed in the auditorium of the same name (which has recently reopened after seven years of restoration).
Just as the written word helped found the nation, it also helped heal it. The Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, implemented by Justice Felix Frankfurter's 1955 decree, is a cornerstone of the U.S. civil rights movement. The justice's emendations to the typewritten implementation order reveal that "forthwith" was replaced with the phrase "with all deliberate speed." Frankfurter made the change because he believed it was the best rate of progress that could be hoped for. Nine years later, Justice Hugo Black stated in a court opinion that the "time for mere 'deliberate speed' has run out."
Optimism reigned supreme in the nation in 1969, when on July 20 the first man, American Neil Armstrong, set foot on the moon. The landing was the culmination of U.S. Cold War efforts to surpass the Soviets' scientific triumph with the 1957 launch of Sputnik. The entire front page of the following day's New York Times was devoted to the event.
The high hopes of the nation, however, were not long-lived. As the Vietnam War dragged on, Americans became increasingly bitter -- even violent -- in their reactions to front-page headlines. The exuberance of Woodstock's "3 Days of Peace and Music ... and Love" in 1969 was soon followed by tragedy. Four students were killed by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University during a protest of the invasion of Cambodia. A 1970 poster with the word "Avenge" crudely painted over what is perhaps the most famous photograph of the event is still a poignant reminder of that turbulent era.
By the mid-'70s, feminism was taking root, and gay rights activists also championed their cause. America's multiculturalism had found a new foothold as a result of the Immigration Act of 1965, illustrated by a 1982 photograph of a Christmas show presented by students of the First Korean School in Silver Spring, Md.
Because the story of America is the story of its individuals -- the famous, the infamous and the unknown -- Eyes of the Nation concludes with a section called "The People." In it one can view portraits of Walt Whitman and Albert Einstein, of Booker T. Washington and Greta Garbo, of an unidentified Native American woman and Chinese American children.